How parents can afford to keep their kids in the sport
Earlier this fall, a friend in Colorado sent me an email. We had met through our sons, who both grew up in ski towns, started skiing shortly after walking, and have been hooked on the sport ever since. Her son had an injury here, a bad season there, and suddenly he was faced with either ramping up the gear, travel and expense to race FIS, or ratcheting way down to race high school. He made the choice that seemed the most reasonable to him.
Her email to me? A screen shot of her bill for all his hockey equipment this year. Though my friend was sad to no longer be a ski racer parent, she admitted, “At least now I can afford to get new skis for myself!”
I used to get defensive when parents told me their kids were quitting ski racing. After all, most sports are obscenely resource-consuming when you get to a certain level. At least skiing carries the life-expanding and family-enriching bonuses that make it worth the incremental expense and effort. But now I understand how clear the decision can be. The really sad thing to me, however, is how often parents and kids get out too early because they are daunted by a prix fixe “all in” menu and don’t consider (or aren’t offered) the variety of available à la carte options.
Certainly, the jump to FIS-level racing is a daunting crossroads. In addition to purchasing and learning to tame a quiver of user-unfriendly skis (a downright masochistic task for many stick-legged teens), kids and parents must consider the time and cost of increased travel.
But even well before the specter of FIS, the most visible path to ski racing success is the one trod by heavy-walleted parents who push programs to offer year-round and full time training opportunities for ever-younger kids. (Yes, I’m calling sub 12-year-olds kids, not “athletes.”) Kids need to start early, after all, because the path to excellence lies through a centralized proving ground in Park City. The sooner kids can prove themselves on that national stage, the better. Yeah, riiiiight.
As an aside, I’m astounded that we even debate the pros and cons of this push toward centralization. Switzerland (not quite the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined), itself has three major national training centers, and Austria (about as big as Maine) has two. That a country the size of the U.S. would aspire to concentrate its top young talent in one site, or push for top kids to leave home as soon as they are “selected” makes little sense. This is especially confounding to me after years of racing against Europeans on their turf and enviously watching them jump into their cars to drive home between races. That was a huge and incontestable advantage.
So, keeping more kids in ski racing is all about knowing and promoting the options on the à la carte menu:
New to ski racing? Well how about starting the little ones out with an Easter Slalom. It includes a chocolate bunny and a dyed track so they won’t get lost.
Then move on to our most popular items in the junior skiing section, which may be found at a single-source home club or may be a combination of home and weekend clubs.
From there choose your entree from a list of ski academies or top clubs, picking your sides from an array of optional off-season and pre season camps.
Not sure what you want (or of your credit card limit)? Mix and match with a few items from our lighter menu of high school and USSA racing, both of which pair beautifully with a normal education and social life.
Special customers will undoubtedly want to select from a variety of levels of FIS, college and even World Cup racing.
Want more? Dig into dessert with masters racing.
Had enough? Skip dessert, but know that you can always grab a late-night snack by jumping into the occasional night league or ProAm.
Special orders welcome when accompanied by creativity, cooperation and collaboration. Please check all egos at the door.
By making the whole menu available, and encouraging kids to pursue the level that works for them, you increase the chances that perhaps they won’t abandon the sport the moment they have strayed off the path or (insert skin-crawling reflex here), “out of the pipeline.” Sometimes stumbling, and finding a new path, is fortuitous.
Every year I see kids heartbroken after not making the end of season über Galactics, whatever they may be. Some write off the season as one big bummer, while others rebound and fill out their spring weekends skiing with friends and blasting out of as many start gates as possible. Those kids end the season a high note, rather than dejected and frustrated.
I recently met an academy graduate who got injured in high school and could not physically withstand her pursuit at the highest level. Instead of abandoning the sport, she changed course to the USSA circuit, competing entirely for fun rather than chasing points. “It was the best thing I ever did,” she recalls. These are the stories that give me hope.
Also recently, a panel of USST athletes were asked what one message they had for youngsters. It was this: “Everyone takes a different path, so make your own and believe in it.” These athletes were youth stars and late bloomers; came from academies, public schools and even college programs; started in one snow sport and wound up in another. I get why kids leave the sport and why their parents are relieved. I just wish somewhere along the way they were offered the entire menu.